As John Paul II Taught Us, Opposition to War Is a Pro-Life Principle

COMMENTARY: With war again rampant, what lessons should we draw from the pro-life Pope’s unflinching opposition to the Iraq War 20 years ago?

President George W. Bush meets with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, in this May 28, 2002 file photo.
President George W. Bush meets with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, in this May 28, 2002 file photo. (photo: Doug Mills / Associated Press )

The sad anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War has passed. Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq and deposed the tyrant Saddam Hussein. These actions led to a decade of violence, terrorism, the destruction of the Christian community in Iraq, and to the discovery that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. 

In remembering, we have forgotten that — as Americans geared up for war with the hope of putting “a boot in their a--” — a prophetic public figure declared “No” to war, denounced the invasion, and predicted that the war would lead to more violence. Who was this public figure? None other than Pope St. John Paul II. 

In the months leading up to the conflict, John Paul II spoke out against it and launched a concerted diplomatic effort to halt its progress. A key moment in this resistance was his Jan. 13 address to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican. The address centers on three affirmations and three denunciations. Two merit our attention. 

The first affirmation is “Yes to Life!” With it, John Paul II ties support of a culture of life, an essential tenet of his pontificate, to his opposition to war, for “war itself is an attack on human life.” The Pope saw that war is a life issue and so inseparable to opposition to abortion, euthanasia and human cloning. Thus, he declares that “the battle for peace is always a battle for life.” Opposition to war, especially to unjust war, is a way of being pro-life in continuity with our opposition to abortion. 

John Paul II further declared “No to War!” War is “never inevitable” and is “always a defeat for humanity.” That defeat is not inevitable and can be avoided by “international law, honest dialogue, solidarity between States, the noble exercise of diplomacy.” 

Refusing martial inevitability, he denounced “the threat of war which could strike the people of Iraq.” Just-war doctrine requires that our “no to war” is only deviated from as “the very last option and in accordance with very strict accordance.” A culture of life means war must be actively avoided and so is only permissible in the rarest of circumstances. 

These circumstances were not met with Iraq, in part, because prevention is not a justification for war. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained that supporters of the war would find that “the concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The Vatican’s response was clear. “No to War” included preventive war precisely because preventive war is not just. 


Diplomatic Campaign

John Paul II undertook a diplomatic campaign to persuade political leaders who supported the war to reconsider. He sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to meet with President George W. Bush to convey his opposition to the war. After the meeting, Cardinal Laghi stated of the war, “You might start it, and you don’t know how to end it.”

This proved painfully true. These diplomatic efforts affirmed the Church’s long-standing support of the United Nations. Laghi stated that we must “wait for the United Nations, whether they would give a green light in one way or the other.” Without waiting, the war would be unjust. 

The most powerful moment in John Paul II’s opposition to the Iraq War was his personal meeting with President Bush. The Pontiff — debilitated by Parkinson’s — publicly and on live TV told Bush that it was time to end the war as “quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people.” The president did not heed the Pope’s advice, and the war dragged on, leaving its wounds on Iraq and Syria to this very day. 

Beyond diplomatic efforts, John Paul II called for spiritual warfare against war. In his 2003 address on Ash Wednesday, he stated that “as we begin our Lenten journey this year, we cannot ignore the tense international situation.” Aware of this situation, he declared, “there must be … a common effort to avoid another dramatic conflict for mankind.” 

Considering that collective effort, he asked that Ash Wednesday to be a “day of prayer and fasting to implore peace in the world.” Faced with the weapons of war, the violation of just-war doctrine, and the threat to human life, John Paul II did not only rely on diplomacy. He relied on the weapons Christians should use, the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 



Lessons to Learn

Looking back, there are important lessons we need to garner from the Holy Father’s unheeded witness. 

The first lesson is that the Catholic Church’s moral witness is an integrated whole. While certain issues, in certain times, are rightly emphasized, that emphasis should not negate the importance of other moral matters. While we might connect the principle of the seamless garment to Catholic “progressives,” it is an animating principle of John Paul II’s pontificate. 

Along these lines, John Paul II’s strong witness against abortion and war is a reminder that pro-life Catholics and peace-and-justice Catholics should be able to work together in their commitment to a culture of life. We see this in John Paul II’s connection of abortion and war as both life issues. We should lament that this joint effort is still so hard to maintain. 

A second is that following the Church’s teachings and listening to the pastors of the Church is not easy for any Catholic. Being a “cafeteria Catholic” may be a stronger temptation for some in, but the eagerness with which others rallied to the Iraq War should remind us that the avowedly faithful can suffer from the malady of ecclesial selectivity. All Christians must be careful not to “conform to the world” (Romans 12:2). 

Few American Catholics lined up behind the Holy Father or the American bishops, who, in accord with the Pope, wrote an open letter urging the president “to step back from the brink of war.” Rather than step back, we tended to rush in. Excellent contributors to Catholic discourse, such as Father Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, dismissed John Paul II as unqualified and as failing to understand just-war theory. But time showed that John Paul II was right. 

A final lesson regards just-war theory. As Pope Francis recently stated, “a war may be just; there is the right to defend oneself. But we need to rethink the way that [just-war theory] is used nowadays.” Thus John Paul II rightly used just-war theory to oppose the Iraq War. Rather than war, he consistently emphasized dialogue, international communities and law, and the power of prayer.  He treated just-war theory as a form of opposition to war. George Weigel claimed that “the just-war tradition does not begin, theologically, with a presumption against war.” In contrast, Pope St. John Paul II taught this presumption against war in his declarations of “No to War.” Just-war theory is not meant to justify war, even if it can help us understand when a war might be just. Just-war theory should be a tool to stop wars. Seeing this can help us understand the injustice of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a supposedly “preventative” war itself. In supporting Ukraine’s self-defense, we stand against war in continuity with John Paul II’s presumption against war. 

In the wake of the Iraq War, Catholics should learn the lessons of the prophetic witness of St. John Paul II and commit to living the full teaching of the Church, to listening to our pastors, and to the work of fostering peace in our world. 

Finally, in advising the faithful to assume the tools of prayer and fasting to stop war, the Pope’s words called to mind Jesus’ advice that certain demons require prayer and fasting to resist (Mark 9:29). May we now, in this time of uncertainty and war, commit ourselves to the work of spiritual warfare at the service of opposition to war and to the work of peace. 

Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us. 

Abortion on the Ballot

A Look at State Ballot Initiatives and Catherine Hadro on Mother Angelica’s Legacy (June 22, 2024)

With the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision two years behind us and the 2024 elections less than six months away, we take a look at state ballot initiatives on abortion with CNA’s Jonah McKeown. Then we talk to Catherine Hadro, the new host of EWTN News In Depth, about her new role, how Mother Angelica’s legacy is continuing to play out at EWTN and some of her own insights into the prolife movement.